Sir Nigel Shadbolt to join new Cabinet Office data policy steering group

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock sets up a new group to help departments to become “intelligent consumers of their own data” – and promises lunchtime coding groups for civil servants. Audience members at the Open Data Institute meanwhile quiz him on the privatisation of the Postcode Address File

A new steering group led by Open Data Institute founder Sir Nigel Shadbolt will ensure that government is “pushing boundaries” of open data, Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock has said.

Speaking at the Open Data Institute (ODI) Summit on Tuesday, Hancock set out four ways he hopes to foster a “data-driven government”: improving data infrastructure; building data skills across the civil service; securing data and ensuring its integrity; and improving data policy governance.

The steering group will advise on data policy and will include Shadbolt as well as and health information expert Dame Fiona Caldicott and members from private sector and academia.

More on open government:
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“They have agreed to serve their nation,” said Hancock. “I hope they will ensure that we remain at the cutting edge, at the forefront and keep pushing boundaries.”

A new Data Leaders Network will also be set up, he said, which will “review the legislation on data-sharing, making sure it supports our goal of open, effective, data-driven government”.

To drive a wider understanding of data and how to use it, there will be a new programme of lunch time code clubs giving civil servants the chance “to roll up their sleeves and get stuck into data,” he said.

“This isn’t about turning everyone into a data-scientist; it’s about making sure that departments are intelligent consumers of their own data.”

Improving the way departments use data will also help to improve the quality of data government produces, Hancock said.

“One of the best ways to make sure our open data is of high quality is if we use it in our day-to-day operations.”

Closing his speech, Hancock asked audience members and the ODI to “keep challenging us, keep pushing us, make sure that you are holding us to account so that we are striving for the same thing which is a data driven government to help create a data driven economy.” 

The audience responded with two questions touching on the controversial decision to include the Postcode Address File (PAF) in the privatisation of Royal Mail in 2013. Hancock’s predecessor Francis Maude argued for the PAF – a database of all addresses in the UK – to be mutualised rather than privatised, and ODI CEO Gavin Starks said the decision to privatise the database flew in the face of commitments to open government.

Responding to a question on how the decision to privatise PAF tallies with open government, Hancock said that a regulatory framework had been put around the PAF and said “making sure that we have economic data registers, where possible, is absolutely vital”.

“We have to work within that regulatory framework that was put in place at the same time of privatisation, and then we’ve got to make the most of it,” he said.

Another audience member asked what Hancock’s description of “decentralised ownership” for data infrastructure meant for other key data sets.

Hancock said government must start with the approach that “there isn’t government data – it is citizen’s data that may be held by the government”.

“My job is to make sure we get the most public value out of this data,” he added.

Each dataset would, Hancock said, require individual decisions on the best way to open it up.

“It costs money to have high quality data sets and the last thing you want to do is lose the integrity of a data set by not having it properly kept and managed,” the minister said. “There is a fiscal cost to this that we’ve got to take into consideration, but our starting principle should be that this is citizens’ data.”

Suzannah Brecknell

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